Secrets in birding

Rachel Lawson RachelLawson at
Wed Mar 6 11:09:02 PST 2002

Gene and Tweeters,

This is obviously a very delicate subject, and, since I seem to be one of
the people that has kept a secret, I want to respond.

I was one of only two people (other than the property owners) who saw the
Painted Bunting when it first appeared in South Seattle. It is unfortunate
that the woman who first saw the bunting ended up reporting it the way she
did. She called SAS, was told to call the BirdBox, and, if she had been
able to use the "chickadees in Washington" code, her report immediately
would have become public, whether she wanted it to or not. As it happens,
my phone number is on the BirdBox tape, so she called me. She left no name
and the phone number was garbled, but she did mention an address. Because
this was such an astonishing report, I called 2 "official" members of the
birding community (from WOS and the WBRC) so the sighting could be
confirmed. Neither of them were able to get away the next day, so I was
the only one who made it down there. I was welcomed by the homeowners, and
during the 3 hours I spent there, I explained what would happen if the
sighting was made public (crowds of birders), told them what they could do
to mitigate the situation (ground rules for visitors), and tried VERY, VERY
hard to convince them that this was the right thing to do. The elderly and
frail husband was ABSOLUTELY CLEAR that he did not want people to come,
despite all my entreaties and even a follow-up call and letter. I
certainly did not try to talk the couple into keeping the bird a secret so
only I and a select few would see it. I did manage to persuade them to let
members of the WBRC come out to document the bird (the "science" thing),
and one did manage to get photos before the bird moved on. I felt TERRIBLE
about the secrecy, and discussed it at length with the three other WOS and
WBRC people who knew about the bird, who all agreed that we had to respect
the residents' clearly expressed wishes. I was enormously pleased when I
heard the bird had reappeared and was now in the public domain.

So, what would you have done? Do you think that a responsible
representative of a birding organization (which I was in this situation, as
WOS BirdBox administrator) can unilaterally decide to override the wishes
of someone who reports a bird? I didn't just walk by on public property
and happen to see the bunting. Gene's situation was a bit different. He
had no prior contact with the homeowners or neighbors, and, therefore,
perhaps not the same obligation to keep the sighting quiet. I have been as
annoyed as anyone when I hear about birds that have been kept secret, but
what could I have done differently?

As it turns out, despite the smiles and apparent welcome of birders at the
Painted Bunting site on Capitol Hill, SAS has been getting complaints from
the neighbors. An officer of SAS called me and actually asked me to delete
any messages on BirdBox about the bunting. I said I didn't think it would
make any difference, now that the word is out on Tweeters. In any case, I
would have resisted strongly any attempt to censor BirdBox messages about
birds visible on or from public property (and was backed up on this by
members of the WOS board and the ex-administrator). But birders DO annoy
non-birders and property owners. The people who reported the Samish Island
Great Gray Owl wanted it kept secret, but now that the secret is out, at
least one birder was seen trespassing, chasing the owl around the property
with a camera. Even if we don't trespass, do we not have any
responsibility to property owners and neighbors, if we are, technically, on
public property? I myself am very ambivalent about all this.

Rachel Lawson
RachelLawson at

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